Many conditions may cause anxiety and brain fog, including mental health diagnoses and physical illnesses.
It is normal to experience occasional brain fog and anxiety, especially during times of high stress. However, people who find that anxiety and brain fog regularly interfere with their everyday activities should seek medical attention.
Keep reading to learn more about brain fog, why it occurs alongside anxiety, and some other potential causes.
What is brain fog?
With brain fog, a person might feel less mentally sharp than usual. Thoughts and emotions may feel numb, and everyday activities may seem to require more effort. Some people describe it as a foggy haze that makes it harder to access their thoughts or plan ahead.
Some examples of things a person might do because of brain fog include:
- forgetting about a task they had to complete
- taking much longer than usual to complete simple tasks
- feeling frequently distracted
- feeling tired when working
Anxiety takes up mental resources. A person may have to use more energy to focus on something other than their anxiety. They may feel that their anxious thoughts constantly intrude on their thought process. This can make it more difficult to concentrate and think clearly.
The effects of anxiety on various tasks and on brain fog may depend on the specific task a person is doing.
In a 2012 study, researchers gave people various tasks that induced feelings of anxiety. The researchers noted that anxiety made relatively easy tasks difficult, because the tasks required more effort. However, the effects of anxiety on more challenging tasks were less obvious.
The study’s authors speculate that this may be because the difficult task used up more cognitive resources, leaving less space for anxiety. It is unclear if a similar phenomenon might happen in actual-world cases of anxiety.
Anxiety may also undermine a person’s thought process, intensifying brain fog. The tasks a person must perform may trigger further anxious thoughts. For example, a person cleaning their house or filing their taxes may find additional things to be anxious about. This may lead to more anxiety, more brain fog, and greater difficulty completing their tasks.
Some mental health conditions that may cause anxiety and brain fog include:
- anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Physical health issues may also cause anxiety and brain fog.
A 2021 study found that COVID-19 survivors, especially those who had to use a ventilator, had a higher risk of PTSD. This also elevated their risk of brain fog. People with long COVID may also experience brain fog and PTSD.
Chronic fatigue syndrome, which can cause a person to feel frequently exhausted, may cause both anxiety and brain fog.
Brain fog is a symptom, not a medical diagnosis. It can feel different to different people, and they might use the same term to refer to a range of symptoms. Some characteristics of brain fog include:
- feeling “spacy” or confused
- feeling fatigued
- thinking more slowly than usual, and needing more time to complete simple tasks
- being easily distracted
- having trouble organizing thoughts or activities
- forgetfulness, such as forgetting daily tasks or losing a train of thought
- word-finding difficulties
Since brain fog is a symptom rather than a medical diagnosis in itself, there is no specific treatment for it. However, managing the anxiety, or the condition causing it, may help.
Some treatment options could include:
- medication, including anti-anxiety medication, antidepressants, or stimulants for ADHD
- psychotherapy to talk about anxiety and develop coping skills
- support groups
- time management systems to help a person remain focused
- adjustments at school or work, such as extra test-taking time
- exercise, deep breathing, and meditation
Getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water, and remaining nourished may also help reduce the risk of brain fog. This is especially helpful for people with anxiety that distracts them from self-care.
Some people find that specific self-care strategies may also help. These could include following a schedule, using a reminder app, or taking frequent breaks from whatever could be heightening anxiety.
Occasional brain fog is normal, especially when a person can identify a clear cause, such as being tired, having a cold, or family stress.
However, people should see a doctor if:
- Brain fog regularly interferes with a person’s ability to complete daily tasks.
- A person has problems with daily functioning. For example, they forget to pay bills or often get lost.
- A person’s memory seems to be getting steadily worse.
- Self-care interventions do not help with brain fog.
- A person experiences brain fog much of the time.
- Anxiety is very intense and does not get better with home treatment.
Numerous medical conditions can cause brain fog. It is important not to ignore this symptom, especially if it does not get better with home treatment.
Some potential reasons a person might develop brain fog include:
- hunger, dehydration, or vitamin deficiencies
- neurological conditions such as dementia or a head injury
- chronic illnesses such as lupus
- illegal drugs and alcohol
- certain medications, such as chemotherapy
Both anxiety and brain fog can severely disrupt a person’s daily life.
Brain fog may make completing simple tasks more difficult. This may lead to worsening anxiety due to missed deadlines and conflict with work or loved ones.
The right treatment can help with both anxiety itself and the brain fog it causes.
A doctor may also be able to recommend self-care strategies. People who are concerned about their anxiety or brain fog should not delay seeking help, especially if the symptoms are severe.